I know, I know. Everybody’s been talking about the new Netflix show, Jessica Jones, for well over a week now. By internet standards, I might as well be talking about Happy Days with this kind of turn around. But it turns out Thanksgiving is an especially demanding holiday for us here at Inside Pulse. Many a-Turkey to be consumed. So we’re hopping on the Jones train a little bit later than everyone else and I’m taking a little break from adult cartoons (Bob’s is on hiatus, South Park is in a dark week, Rick and Morty is over for, like, a year and a half). But in the meantime, we’ll be catching up on Marvel’s latest (and possibly greatest). And boy howdy is it good. I want to clarify for readers right off the bat that I’m not familiar with any of the other Marvel TV shows and I’m definitely not familiar with the Jessica Jones of the comics. So this is going to be a series of reviews from a veritable novice. Which gives you guys an opportunity to correct everything I say in the comments! Sounds like fun, right?
Here are some thoughts.
1. Noir suits the superhero world
Obviously, this is something that comic book writers have known for decades. Jessica Jones is no visionary in that sense. From Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One and his film adaptation of Sin City, to Marvel’s Noir series and Ed Brubaker’s Criminal, noir has been a staple of the medium for a very long time. It makes a lot of sense, too. Mysterious characters in an urban landscape fighting over-the-top villains is how you could describe either genre. But what makes this iteration so interesting is that we now have women in the roles that men usually play. It feels different. And I’ll get to that shortly.
2. The writing is so sharp
There are little moments throughout the first episode that make the script positively sparkle. The dialogue is slick and frugal, dispatching with needless backstory and exposition. There’s no “I’m this way because…” bullshit that is a frequent trap of both superhero and noir stories. We’re allowed to piece together bits of our characters backstories through an image here or a suggestive sentence or two there. The first episode also avoids the trap of dense plotting and character introduction, allowing us to breathe a little bit and enjoy the quirks of some of the non-essential characters. Jessica is a PI working in New York City and when a young woman turns up missing, her parents go to her for help. It’s a treat to watch as the girl’s father insists on fixing Jessica’s door, while also being able to acknowledge the sexism inherent in his concern for her safety. “A woman can’t have a broken door in New York City!” he says, not understanding that Jessica is perhaps the most competent person in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s these subtle flourishes in the script that immediately separate the show from every other bit of superhero media out there right now.
3. The introduction to the character is subtle and piecemeal
Jessica Jones, as I mentioned before, is a private investigator. She lives alone and works alone. She has no love interest and no friends to speak of. We understand that she’s an alcoholic, mostly because of the half empty bottles of whiskey strewn around her apartment. She has a working relationship with several different people around the city, mostly women, and she’s really good at her job. We also learn, about 18 minutes into the episode, that she has super strength after she jumps onto a fire escape two stories up. There is no fanfare, no clear introduction to here powers. It’s just part of who she is and the show treats it the same way she does: with utilitarian disinterest. We soon discover that she is the victim of a sexual assault from a man who has the ability to control peoples minds. No one has to tell us this. All we need is her occasional PTSD flashbacks and it becomes crystal clear. So when a girl goes missing and she discovers the man who has kidnapped her is the very same abuser, the stakes are instantly clear. All of this is done with next to no exposition and without compromising any characters. Again, the writing is on point.
4. Let’s talk about gender politics!
This is what most people are talking about when they talk about Jessica Jones. And while it is important to talk about, I didn’t want to start the review with this discussion. Because while it is thrilling to see women carrying this show, it’s even more thrilling that the show is really good. I wanted to cover that first. Because a show that puts women front and center but it ultimately mediocre isn’t really a triumph at all. But that is not this show. Instead, we have a noir in which the gender roles have been almost 100% reversed. All the women (for the most part) are in positions of power; as corporate big shots, TV hosts, or as tough-as-nails private investigators. Men, on the other hand, are bumbling well-meaning morons, out-and-out idiot douchebags, or sex objects. As a male viewer, it was totally eye opening to watch something in which my gender is relegated to the sidelines and it gave me a clear, emotional understanding of how women must feel every time they watch anything. Not only that, but the show seems to be making an effort to draw from the rich diversity New York has to offer, putting people of minority backgrounds front and center. There is no Girls-esque white washing of the New York City landscape. This is a more familiar (and accurate) New York. And on top of all that, our heroine is not sexualized in the slightest. She’s brusque, sarcastic, intelligent, and talented. That’s where her sexiness comes from. Not from wearing spandex.
5. The plot is slow to start, but I don’t mind in the slightest
For the first twenty minutes or so of the episode, we don’t really know what the main plot of the story is. Instead, our first chunk of time with Jessica is getting to know her. We get to see how she works, who she works with and who the people in her life are. The plot doesn’t come around until we know our hero a little bit. And that holding out is extremely effective. Instead of being dropped into the world as the plot begins, we enter the world with a little bit of time to explore, get to know the place, understand the rules. So when the plot actually kicks in, we get how the world works and we can focus on what’s happening, rather than trying to learn who’s who or how everything works in this universe. It’s a gamble and a show with writing any less sophisticated might fail at it. Instead, we have this show. So it works beautifully.
6. What exactly are her powers?
I’m inclined to say super strength. She jumps onto that fire escape and is able to lift a car from behind. I don’t recall any other powers, other than her stupendous detective skills. It seems a little rote. I assumed there would be something a little more novel for the character. Perhaps there is and we haven’t been introduced to it yet.
7. It’s nice to watch a show without feeling guilty about the social ramifications
It seems like every TV show you watch these days is remarkably good. We are, of course, living in the second Golden Age of Television. But it also seems as if every time I start enjoying a show, there is someone out there decrying it for not depicting one subset of people or the other. The cast isn’t diverse enough, the show depicts rape problematically, women are relegated to whores and damsels in distress. These are all totally reasonable critiques of shows like Breaking Bad, True Detective, The Walking Dead, and innumerable other so-called “prestige” television shows. It’s nice, for once, to watch a really good show and not feel vaguely guilty about supporting something that propagates the white male worldview.
8. The noir tropes don’t feel like tropes
They are there. The alcoholic, stoic, no nonsense main character. The moody, mysterious urban setting. The wry, but crisp dialogue. All staples of the noir genre. But they don’t feel that way. You know why? Because all of these things are happening with women front and center. We’ve seen plenty of moody male antiheroes, so it’s really not fun to watch them anymore. But with women in the lead, it suddenly feels new; different. Think about all the genres that could be reinvigorated if instead of men in the leads, we put women. It would make for a thrilling new age of television and movies. All of our favorite genres: new and improved.
9. It seems to be an allegory for sexual trauma
Jessica’s nemesis is a sexual predator. She has to save a women from the same fate. It would appear that this battle is going to be a proxy for the story of woman overcoming her trauma and abuser. I’m excited to see how that plays out.
10. This show is important
For all of the reasons I stated, this show is going to be very important. While also being very good, it happens to tear down loads of barriers and tired ideas about what makes a story, especially a noir, good. We need more of this in our culture. So let’s be grateful for Jessica Jones, and hope that she encourages many imitators.
Tags: Jessica Jones, ladies night, Netflix, pilot